Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Issue #27: May 2012

By Chris La Tray 

Maggie sat on the top porch step, sick to her stomach, watching firemen douse the flaming remains of her Dodge Neon. The smoke curled up and away in the breeze, disappearing against the night sky. She needed a cigarette. She needed a drink. She shook her head, rubbed her temples with the palms of her hands, and cursed herself for being stupid.


Less than an hour earlier she’d been in the car, parked behind a smelly blue metal dumpster tagged with illegible graffiti, watching and waiting as lengthening shadows oozed across the trailer park. She’d hoped darkness would arrive before Tony did. But she couldn’t remember now which came first.

Maggie wanted to even the score. A score from a long list of scores she figured needed settling; with exes, with landlords, with fate. This one with Tony, though, seemed achievable.

Call it low-hanging fruit.

Maggie felt justified in having never trusted Tony. At twenty-something, maybe half her age, the faded khakis and over-washed polo shirt he’d been wearing when Karen from the employment agency introduced them hadn’t fooled her. He was a candidate, “As good as we’ve ever seen!” Karen had gushed with false enthusiasm, to provide home healthcare to Maggie’s younger sister, Jackie.

Jackie was thirty-one, developmentally disabled, and a quadriplegic.

Even with help from the state for the in-home care, Maggie could barely make ends meet. The best job she could find was working the swing shift at the Vegas Nites casino—whose garish lite-brite reader board out front had advertised “progerssive payouts” since day one—no matter how many times she’d told them the spelling was fucked—at the opposite end of town from her battered 1977 Biltmore single-wide on a decrepit street in East Missoula. So she was gone most afternoons and evenings, usually until midnight or so, necessitating someone to care for Jackie. The circumstances they lived in didn’t provide many options. Maggie had to take what the agency offered, and that meant inviting Tony into her life.

The first few weeks were uneventful. The khakis and polo were soon replaced by ratty jeans and MMA t-shirts, then to cargo shorts and a wife beater as summer bore down. Arriving home at the end of her shift, Maggie had caught the lingering aroma of weed in the trailer on several occasions. She didn’t mind that too much; she was inclined to take a toke or two herself when she could get it. She’d even shared with Jackie in the past. The pot had a calming effect on her sister.

Maggie also suspected Tony was having a woman visit; not his wife either, she suspected, a woman he rarely mentioned, and then only in passing. The salty tang of fucking in the master bedroom, real or imagined, and a rumpled bed left her less than thrilled. But without real proof she couldn’t do anything about it. Too embarrassed to ask outright, Maggie was more angry he was getting something under her roof that she wasn’t.

Overall, despite of her misgivings about Tony, Maggie had to accept that Jackie seemed to be doing well, and that was all that mattered.

Then Maggie allowed Jackie to get a puppy. It was a cute little mutt, all head and paws, and Jackie loved it. She would beam and giggle at its antics, laughing uncontrollably as it crawled all over her, licking her face. Watching them together made Maggie smile. Laughter was always welcome in their home, and all too rare. She wished she’d gotten one sooner.

Maggie quickly learned that adjustments would be necessary. “Keep an eye on that dog,” she reminded Tony every evening as she left. “The little bastard likes to chew, and I didn’t have time to pick up the place.” Tony would nod, smile, and assure her that everything would be cool.

Eight nights after the puppy’s arrival, with an hour to go in her shift, Maggie got the call: there had been an accident. She rushed to the emergency room at St. Pat’s. A serious-faced doctor informed her that the puppy had chewed two of Jackie’s fingers all the way down to the second knuckle. Surgery was necessary to repair the gnawed bones and tissue. That some stitches, some dressings, and some bandages was all that could be done. It was fortunate Jackie didn’t require use of her hands or the injuries would have been far more serious. And costly.

The emergency room bill, let alone the surgery, was outrageous. And Vegas Nites Casino certainly didn’t offer health insurance.

Tony’s story about what had happened wasn’t so clear, but he seemed genuinely upset. Jackie fell asleep in front of the TV with the puppy on her lap, or it jumped up there on its own. However it happened, by the time Tony checked on her and noticed, the damage was done.

Tony lost his job with the employment agency. Maggie decided that wasn’t enough. She figured he’d been getting high, or getting laid, whatever. It didn’t matter. She would have her retribution. For the expense, the stress, and just because someone had to pay.

Her target was Tony’s car. His pride and joy. A little black and primer-colored rice burner that he claimed he was making into a street racer. Maggie thought it looked more like a hooptie and sounded like an over-revved lawn mower.

“It’s still in design mode,” Tony had explained.

Perfect for her wrath.

Waiting just up the street from Tony’s trailer in the park he lived in, Maggie heard his car approaching before she saw it. She slouched in her seat as he passed, the side panels buzzing with bass vibrations from whatever he was listening to, and turned sharply into the space in front of his trailer. Tony got out, slammed the driver’s door, hitched up his sagging camo shorts, then opened the rear passenger door. Reaching inside, he gathered several brown plastic Albertson’s grocery bags until both hands were full, then shoved the door closed with his knee. Watching him, Maggie’s breath quickened. She knew she needed to move fast.

Tony was up the steps of the porch and headed for the front door when Maggie grabbed one of a pair of wine bottles on her passenger seat and popped the cork. The stench of gasoline was strong, and the liquid sloshed inside as she stuffed a long strip of torn t-shirt down the neck until only about eight inches hung out the end.

Tony managed to get his front door opened, wrestling to work the handle without dropping the bags, and disappeared inside. The door banged shut behind him.

Maggie hurried out of her car and trotted to Tony’s driveway, bottle gripped in her right hand. Halfway there she paused and flicked a blue plastic lighter to flame with her left hand and ignited the strip of cloth. She saw the driver-side window of Tony’s car was down. Maggie nearly giggled at her good fortune.

She neared the car, arm raised to toss the bottle, and saw the toddler strapped into a car seat on the passenger side.

“What kind of idiot takes the groceries in before the baby?” was her first thought.

“Tony has a baby?” was her second.

Then she remembered the makeshift car bomb about to go off in her hand.

Cursing, Maggie turned and ran, eyes casting about for a new target. She seized on the dumpster, wound up and hurled the flaming bottle toward it underhand.

She missed. The bottle flew in a perfect line through the open driver’s side window of her own car, crashed against the opposite window, and burst into flame.


Tony nudged Maggie from his seat beside her on the porch and offered her a skinny joint. She looked at the firemen and the two cops with them, then at the chubby toddler giggling as Tony bounced her on his knee. Maggie shrugged and took it from his hand.

“Fuck it,” she said, and took a hit.

Luckily the fire had been constrained to the Neon. Lucky for the trailers nearby, at least, not so much for her car. With her only form of transportation now a smoking ruin, Maggie figured she was probably out of work too.

Tony had rushed out of the house at the whoomph! of the explosion, his wife, a curvy woman who looked hardly old enough to be out of high school, on his heels. The street soon clogged with every available neighbor within earshot to see the spectacle. Tony stared at Maggie, who returned his look with defiance, her hair and eyebrows scorched from her proximity to the initial flare. Then he turned away and retrieved the kid from the car seat. Maggie assumed she was fucked.

When the fire trucks and the cops arrived, though, Tony quickly concocted some bullshit story about a stupid accident that absolved Maggie of any criminal activities. Since no one else saw what really happened, who could say otherwise? She’d still likely get a ticket, but that was a small price to pay.

They watched the car burn. Maybe Tony had been fucking instead of watching Jackie. Maybe he’d been getting high. Hell, maybe he’d been taking care of his own kid and didn’t want to admit it in case it was against some agency rule or something. Bottom line was now he was out of a job, and Maggie probably was, too. Not to mention her car.

There was some solidarity in that.

Chris La Tray is a rocker, a writer, and a wannabe adventurer. His nonfiction writing has appeared in the Missoula IndependentVintage Guitar magazine, and World Explorer magazine. His short fiction has appeared at Beat to a Pulp; Pulp Modern; the Crimefactory special edition, Kung Fu Factory; Noir at the Bar; Needle: A Magazine of Noirand the charity anthology Off the Record. His story “Run for the Roses” was the winner of the 2011 Watery Grave Invitational story competition. He lives and travels from Missoula, MT. He keeps a website at http://chrislatray.com.


  1. Had a Dodge Neon once that leaked oil like a sieve. Thus, this story started out for me on exactly the right note. Just gets better after that. Have to say what you've got here is the perfect start to something much longer. This configuration of Missoula characters cries out for a real saga. Thanks.

  2. Loved it. Beautiful tension and restraint, a pleasantly languid tone, and the baby and the puppy came out alive! Top job, sir.

  3. Good stuff here, Chris. Good pacing, good characters, I enjoyed reading it.

  4. I enjoyed this one, Chris. I like where you went with it.

  5. Excellent. Character and motivation really well developed, and a smooth finish. I like it.

  6. Life isn't fair, but sometimes it does have a real ironic sense of humor. There's a moral here, it's plain. Cool story, Chris.

  7. That was a great read. I always enjoy your stories, Chris. This line caught me totally off guard and was an awesome transition!

    "She neared the car, arm raised to toss the bottle, and saw the toddler strapped into a car seat on the passenger side."

    The fingers getting chewed off was nasty, but I loved it!

  8. This is wonderful writing and storytelling.

  9. Interesting little detour about taking care of a loved one.

    Blowing up one's own car, sad to say, seems to be rule, and not the exception.

    Overall, a very good read.

  10. Thanks for the comments, they are much appreciated.